Back in May the government released New Zealand’s first ever Emissions Reduction Plan. This was an historic moment, finally a plan with legislative weight that will help guide how we can meet our climate commitments over time.

The ERP confirms that transport needs to play a major role in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Transport makes up nearly half the country’s carbon dioxide emissions (around 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions) and between 1990 and 2018 transport emissions nearly doubled, which the Climate Commission says is the most rapidly increasing source of emissions in recent decades. In fact, the transport sector has been largely responsible for the increase in New Zealand’s overall emissions over the past 30 years.

The ERP is clear that emissions need to be reduced through a combination of electrifying the vehicle fleet and reducing emissions intensity of fuel, reducing freight emissions and reducing light-vehicle travel. This manifests in four key targets:

This post is going to explore how government got to that first target – around reducing VKT – and look at why we need to reduce light VKT by this much.

A key piece of work informing the ERP (alongside advice from the Climate Commission) was the Hikina te Kohupara ‘Green Paper’ that the Ministry of Transport released in May 2021 as a discussion document of the various ways in which transport emissions could be reduced over time. This work incorporated the best practice ‘Avoid, Shift, Improve’ framework for reducing emissions, before looking at what it might look like to place different levels of emphasis on each component of this framework.

The work also looked at freight separately to people, because the ways of achieving change here have some important distinctions. This led to the development of three themes:

Four pathways were developed to understand the advantages, disadvantages, feasibility and impact on emissions of placing different levels of emphasis across the three themes.

Essentially the first three pathways test different levels of emphasis on ‘avoid and shift’ interventions – which is all about impact on total vehicle travel – while all placing a high emphasis on the need to improve the vehicle fleet, not only through electrification but also reducing the energy intensity of fuels and improving vehicle efficiency (for both moving people and freight).

Pathway 4 seems to have come along quite late in the process, because the Ministry of Transport realised that none of the first three pathways would be sufficient to meet the Climate Commission’s emerging emissions budgets out to 2035. You can see this in the modelling of the four pathways:

All this technical work is then outlined in a pretty useful table, which highlights what is expected to happen to various metrics under the different pathways. Looking at pathway 4 in particular, we can see that for the Climate Commission’s 2035 budgets to be met there would need to be a 39% reduction in light VKT, 27% of the vehicle fleet would need to be electric, and 4% of medium trucks would need to be electric.

Interestingly, when you compare Pathway 4 against a pathway developed by the Climate Commission, there are some important differences. The Climate Commission assumes less of a reduction in VKT (14%), but on the flip side assumes that 41% of the vehicle fleet would be electric by 2035.

There are obviously immense challenges in achieving this quantum of change in the next 13 years – to both VKT and the vehicle fleet. We’re pretty familiar with the challenges of reducing VKT, especially with a growing population and a very car dependent transport system and urban form, so I found an evidence paper by the Climate Commission that delves a bit more into some of the challenges with transforming the vehicle fleet pretty interesting.

Firstly, over their whole lifespan, electric vehicles aren’t completely carbon-neutral anyway. Once you consider their manufacturing, shipping, battery manufacture, raw materials extraction etc., EVs reduce emissions by around 60% compared to internal combustion engines – still a big improvement!

Alongside cost, and especially relevant to the 2035 targets, is simply how much of the fleet can feasibly be changed to electric over 13 years – especially when our average fleet age is more than this. In particular, it seems like there are some critical supply constraints for used EV imports – especially relevant as we are very reliant on imports from Japan for our vehicle fleet as a whole.

When landing on the final ‘balance’ between VKT reduction and fleet transformation in the ERP, it seems the government took a middle ground between what was in Hikina te Kohupara’s ‘pathway 4’ and what was in the Climate Commission’s recommended pathway. Interestingly the overall target for emissions reductions was also changed from a 47% decrease between 2018 and 2035 in earlier work, to a 41% decrease between 2019 and 2035 in the final ERP.

Hikina Te Kohupara pathway 4Climate CommissionFinal ERP
  Total transport emissions reduction47%47%41%
  VKT reduction39%14%20%
  % of fleet zero emissions27%41%30%

It seems that in the end the ERP landed in a fairly pragmatic place on this, somewhat helped by a tweak in the final numbers around the scale of reduction needed for transport emissions overall. The assumption around fleet transformation is slightly more aggressive than pathway 4 of Hikina te Kohupara, but that means VKT reduction doesn’t have to be quite as steep (especially as bizarrely the VKT reduction target seems to be a comparison against a 2035 baseline projection, rather than a base year, just to confuse everyone).

Of course achieving a 20% reduction in VKT across the whole of New Zealand will require more aggressive reductions in some parts of the country – notably Auckland – to ‘offset’ the difficulties in achieving much change in smaller towns and rural areas. The ERP states that regional VKT reduction targets will be developed by the end of the year, to help guide future planning work. It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on this for Auckland, as I suspect we will need to (and are best placed to) do a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ on this if the country as a whole is to achieve these goals.

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    1. When I worked at a Council there was this manager who wanted to close all community centres. By his reckoning he could save the Council millions in operating expenses over the following decades. His assumption seemed to be that community centres had no benefit. I am not sure why he thought that, maybe because he couldn’t count the benefits he thought it must be zero.

      The ‘We must reduce VKT’ by rule mob are making a similar assumption. They are saying ‘other people must be making trips that have no value’. Again I have no idea how they reached that conclusion. The bit that really stumps me is what ever happened to the idea of doing things when the benefits exceed the cost?

      1. Are people arguing that ‘other people must be making trips that have no value’? Or is that a strawman? I thought most of the argument was around providing alternative means of transport (public, bicycle, walking) so the many trips could be taken without using a low occupancy motor vehicle

        1. The only time you have have a substitution without any wealth effect is in the special case of ‘perfect substitutes’. They are not proposing any perfect substitute for car travel. That means there will have to be some trips that occur now that don’t occur in the future and some alternatives that also include a reduction in utility.

          Problem is nobody writing this stuff knows what the dead weight loss will be.

        2. WFH and walkable neighbourhoods (would) make a lot of trips unnecessary. Reliable school busses make trips unnecessary. Efficient PT (trains, trams, 24/7 bus lanes) make car trips unnecessary. Stuff you argue against in order to still “have the choice” while the only option you have is the car.

          In what terms do you want to perfectly substitute car travel? Noise? CO2 emissions? Other pollution like microplastics? I know a lot of transport methods that do even better than cars!

        3. The best way to determine the value of vehicle-trips to those that make them is to slap on some kind of charge, which both reflects the wider costs to society of those trips, and makes vehicle-users weigh-up whether the trip is worth making or not. So people who drive the equivalent of a short walk in peak-hour traffic to run some trivial errand will be confronted with a deterrent to what is quite socially-costly behaviour. Current trip-charging based mainly on fuel-use fails to distinguish between trips that impose a high cost on society and those that impose “less of a high cost” (recognizing that all impose a degree of social cost).
          As someone who for many decades has sought to minimise personal car-use, I have become well-acquainted with the long list of excuses commonly trotted out by others in justfication of the vehicle-trips they make. It is my strong impression that a significant proportion fall into the category of “frivolous” or at least, far-from essential. Then an even greater proportion could be categorised as only necessary because of a lack of alternatives, and because of the ill-considered way society has structured itself around car-dependency.
          That leaves only a residual proportion of vehicle-trips that can seriously be classed as essential, or of such value to their makers that a less car-oriented society plus a realistically-applied “social charge” would not deter them.
          We have had decades to recognize the social and envrionmental harm caused by excessive car-dependency and we have incredibly remiss in not doing far more to counter it over this time.

        4. Dave B that is a fantastic idea. We could charge the cost of the carbon emissions people create and if their car trip has a greater value they would pay it and if their car trip has a lower value they will either change or not travel. We already have this system, it is called the Emissions Trading Scheme.

        5. Miffy, I’m not just talking about the carbon-emission costs of vehicle trips. It’s all the other social costs and externalities that must be considered as well. These are insufficiently charged to the user, and are certainly not discriminated to reflect the varying social costs of different trips at different times. This inadequacy was extant long before carbon emissions were recognized as an issue. Emissions are just another problem of vehicle use to add to an already lengthy list.

        6. You won’t get any opposition from me over a congestion charge. But I am opposed to this ‘must reduce VKT’ crap. Why do we oppose people making a trip? VKT is a poor proxy for carbon and with EVs will become even worse as a proxy. The folks trying to do this refuse to consider the downside of their policies, which means they are bound to fail.

        7. “Why do we oppose people making a trip?” We should oppose people making a trip if the cost on wider society of that trip (or the aggregate cost of millions of such trips) is not properly compensated by the person(s) making that trip(s). Just as we would oppose any other activity with the level of harmful externalities inherent in road transport. There are many activities we don’t allow because of their safety-implications on other people, or their adverse-effects on the environment, or their detrimental effect on aspects of society which we value. Road transport is a big outlier in somehow being exempt from the normal controls that have grown up to protect our society.
          Instead of asking “”Why do we oppose people making a trip?”, it would be better to ask, “Why do we corral everyone into making most of their trips by a very dangerous and damaging mode?”. There are, or at least there ought to be, many other ways of “making trips” which do not impose disproportionate costs on our society, our health and our environment. Various other countries demonstrate that NZ’s extreme car-dependence and lack of alternatives are not inevitable. Unfortunately many in NZ are too head-in-sand to face this.
          So, excuse me, Miffy, while I shout: We MUST reduce VKT. But feel free, to promote an increase in much-less-harmful TKT (train kilometres travelled), or BKT (bus, bicycle…), or SPKT (shank’s pony…). If the Dutch can manage it so can we. They have impressive stats around CKT (Clogs…).

  1. Rebuilding New Zealand’s long distance passenger rail network, suburban rail services for Christchurch and Dunedin, finishing and extending electrification of our railways would be a tangible step forward.

    1. Unfortunately it won’t achieve anything like a 20% reduction in VKT, the best bang for buck is in the cities, particularly near the centres. But when exactly is the start date? When are we going to see the Labour party commit a ton of money to walking and cycling and buses? It takes AT about 10 years just to design and consult and build, so the start date needed to be yesterday. And we need law changes too so AT are allowed to take away “amenities” like road lanes and parking without all the BS.

      1. Connecting cities and smaller communities with quality long distance passenger rail options will enable people to forgo car usage, it is a part of the mix of emissions reduction mitigations that we need, otherwise cities become islands.
        “Bang for buck” isn’t that important as investment would need to be made incrementally – New Zealand’s just needs to grow up and actually start making investment in long distance passenger rail.

        1. Bank for buck is vitally important as achieving a 20% reduction in 13 years just using carrots (because the government don’t seem to want to use sticks) will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Spending a billion on a PT line that has thousands of users a day is much more important than spending a billion electrifying a regional rail line that has a couple of hundred users. I get the network effect, and yeah regional rail can play a part particularly if it is just operational costs on existing infrastructure, but it is a very small piece of the puzzle. $100 million dollars on Auckland to Hamilton has only achieved pollution savings of 30 cars a day or something like that, and that is probably the best location in the country!

        2. The latest Te Huia patronage is on their website already. Total month trips shows 7,609, that’s up from 4,981 for June. An average of 245 per day if you base it on a 7 day week.

        3. That is enough people to fill a motorway lane for 8 minutes.

          To be fair this is not surprising given that we just spent a big bag of money building the expressway.

        4. I read somewhere is just over 200 per weekday (210?) but over 300 (380?) on the Saturdays when it runs (all from memory).

          Each incremental improvement (stopping at Puhinui for Airport, extension into The Strand) is driving patronage increases. And fuel prices won’t hurt.

        5. I caught the afternoon Te Huia from Hamilton to Auckland on Friday 22 July. It was rammed, with all seats taken and lots of people standing. The morning train in the other direction on Wednesday 20 July was more comfortable, but still felt decently busy.

          Fun fact: The Te Huia return trip, plus three return bus trips from Hamilton to Cambridge, and a few other bus trips within Hamilton (e.g. to the zoo), all ran to schedule, and the total cost was less than the return ferry trip between Waiheke to Downtown.

    1. Lots and lots, David. Paris reduced theirs by 40% in the same period of time that Auckland increased ours by 40%. Which is a terrible indictment of our car dependent planning.

      It all comes down to what we invest in. Many (not all) of the SUMP plans (Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans) have been focused on reducing VKT. These started in Europe but have spread to other parts of the world too, due to their success.

    2. Possibly Auckland. Through the use of Microsoft Teams and a change in attitude by managers who used to assume that anyone at home wouldn’t be working. Perhaps they could write software to allow the other managers to spy on their staff to check they are working could also reduce travel. They could call it Micro-Manager.

  2. The Climate Commission constantly references mode shift as an option for reducing emissions, yet provides no environmentally friendly alternative modes to shift to.
    Night trains between Auckland and Wellington would be a modern and realistic alternative to air travel (very polluting) and also road transport over this route.

      1. Thanks Paul, have signed the trains petition.
        Not convinced that buses over longer distance is a good idea, I would not use a bus for long trips and most people I know would not consider that either. Bus travel for longer trips isn’t an attractive proposal.

        1. Mode bias at it’s finest.
          Bus trips for longer distance travel is great. Just doesn’t work well currently as most towns have bus stops in terrible locations and aren’t set well to accommodate visitors. (toilets, safe area, food etc). Very similar problems to regional rail travel.

        2. Well I just looked (2PM give or take) up what the next departure to (roll a dice) Rotorua is, and according to Google that is tomorrow. The InterCity website itself disagrees, and tells you there is a 7:00 PM departure today. The 7 PM entry shows up twice, one with a $62 ticket price, and one with a SOLD OUT label.

          I don’t think a bus system in general is bad, but the bus system we currently have is only useful for a few extremely niche use cases. Almost nobody who can afford to drive will catch those buses. (this would be physically impossible anyway since there are less than 1000 seats daily)

        3. If you think about the Skybus, plenty of people ride it for the hour it takes to get from Albany to the airport.

          You can get a long way if you travel an hour from our major centers.

        1. Maybe, based on the currently quality of service.

          What if they were business class (TV, meal, reclining seats) like they have overseas? I have taken these between KL and SG, a 5hr trip.

  3. Personally, I’ve found that the recent massive hike in petrol prices to be a great incentive to lower my VKT (Vehicle Kilometres Travelled, for Richard’s sake). I run a 20 year old car (in perfect mechanical order) but it chews through the gas on trips around town, so over the last few months as the petrol price has hiked, I’ve simply stopped using the car. Took it out yesterday for virtually its only drive in July (and, not coincidentally, the first time we have seen the sun for weeks now), as the rest of the time I’ve been working from home with Covid, or walking. So, gone from about 60km per week, to 20km in a month. Massive gas prices are remarkably effective…

    1. Yes money talks, always has and always will, but our governments are too scared to make driving more expensive. Realistically it is the only option that will achieve anything like a 20% VKT reduction, and it could be done overnight with a $1 a litre environment fuel tax. To make the policy more popular they could give all the money back equally, maybe at the end of each month you get something like $100 rebate from the government, for someone like you or I we end up way better off, for someone who guzzles gas they have a very good incentive to stop doing so.

    2. Price is the only efficient way of reducing travel. Using rules to try and stop people travelling must surely impose an economic loss. The numb-nuts who write these policies must know that and presumably don’t care. Maybe there are some who genuinely think other people’s travel has no benefit and can be squashed without cost. If these people exist we can only hope they don’t get to write policy.

      1. This is an incoherent comment interspersed with some charming ad hominem jabs. So you think pricing causes no economic loss?

        The price elasticity of demand for transport is actually relatively low (ie people overall don’t cut their car use much when fuel gets pricier). This is in part because people don’t calculate the costs well and partly because they have little choice (still got to commute, drive from their suburb to the supermarket, etc). This is also why we can’t rely on the ETS to reduce transport emissions.

        So we have to regulate to provide options as well as provide price signals. For example: implementing congestion charging and pricing parking *plus* providing public transport and active transport alternatives. Not just one or the other.

    3. Yes, there is a certain order that needs to be followed in order for a VKT reduction.
      Firstly, install a viable PT system that can cope with existing numbers, and capable of being scaled up to proposed future numbers.

      Secondly, reduce the current advantage that private transport has over public transport. For instance, currently in many (most?) cases, to travel by car is cheaper, faster, more comfortable and safer than PT. So, you either need to make PT less costly, less slow, far more comfortable, and a highly safe means of transport – or you need to get people to move away from cars by making them more expensive to run (ie higher fuel prices or congestion charging), slower (eg lowering speed limits, lessening the amount of road space etc), less comfortable (financially and physically – judder bars), etc.

      Thirdly – redesign the city thoroughfares so that pedestrians and cyclists and scooterers get the best, safest, smoothest, most direct routes, while private cars are diverted all over the place.

      Lastly, fourth move – introduce Congestion charging, introduce on-street parking charges, etc.

      Main thing is: don’t try and do it in any other order. You can’t do level 4 without 1-3 being in place already.

  4. The sector has been instructed to reduce VKT for at least 14 years now. It was in the GPS 2008. It was in the Auckland Long Term Plan in 2012. It was in Auckland’s Low Carbon Strategic Action Plan in 2014.

    AT refused to put it in the latest Statement of Intent because:

    “at this point, there is no auditable VKT measure that could be included in the SOI. The intention, through the next stage of the TERP is to develop a VKT measure (with baselines and targets) to ensure that AT is able to monitor progress towards Central Government’s target of a 20% reduction in VKT (compared to 2035 levels without intervention) and making meaningful progress down the pathway to a 64% reduction in transport related greenhouse gas emissions by 2030”

    Such bollocks excuses. Why isn’t the Board saying, “Why didn’t you bring this up before? This is outrageous. Who was responsible and didn’t do their job?”

    1. It’s like how I study for exams; wait for the night before and hope you can learn it all in one night. But realistically its almost impossible for AT to achieve 20% in 13 years so they can’t keep waiting. My guess is that in 13 years they will just blame the government, and to be fair it is the government that has the big levers, AT aren’t even allowed to take cars off a short section of Queen Street!

      1. AT were told to take cars off of Queen Street and refused. Council had to take over to get any progress at all

    2. Government needs to authorise the means of reducing vkt. Council needs to set targets and devise the means of measuring and reporting, plus provide the political support for effective action.
      AT can then get on with what AT has been partially able to do. AT can’t set targets for what can’t be measured. For example, Road User Charges and recorded km from WOF checks can tell total vkt, but not where it happens – some correction factors need to be worked out, for cross-regional border travel. And AT/State Highway split is tricky (but ATAP could combine those).
      Govt and Council could try land use planning to affect what travel people need to be able to do.

      1. AT has been in charge of the road network for 12 years and have been able to reduce vkt all that time. There are many levers for vkt reduction fully within their control.

        The problem hasn’t been a lack of means to reduce vkt, nor a lack of targets, nor a lack of the means of measuring vkt.

        The problem has been AT’s attitude that vkt reduction should only be undertaken if every i is dotted and every t is crossed; that vkt reduction is somehow a bad thing to do unless the way forward has been cleared of every possible obstacle.

        When in fact it has been clear for AT’s entire existence that reducing vkt serves society well, making it easier to operate the transport system.

        The saddest thing is that this attitude continues today, despite everything.

  5. Apart from the impressive studies with pretty graphs, there are many things that need to be considered and acted upon. Firstly, AT’s management of the Auckland rail network needs some critical investigation. The simple truncation of the Onehuinga line is driving people en masse back to their cars! Also the poor service with cancellations and no proper bus connections in place as well as people on that line not being given the government half fare rate. Across the network there are cancellations frequently (due to Covod) but no communicationb to users waiting on the stations. KiwiRail have left the Gisborne line closed as well as the Stratford to Okahukura line and the lines to Napier and New Plymouth are technically in managed decline. This country is devoid of any attractive (especially rail) forms of long distance public transport because the model for such provision is fragmented through various local governments instead of there being a national coordination authority to rid the system of paraochialism as seen by the Te Huia nonsense, and to bring about proper funding through a centralised system. As you say, emission free cars is a misnomer and currently an electric car with a similar range to a IC car would have to go nearly 300,000 kms to make any carbon savings (not so bad with shorter range EV’s). Although the studies look promising, the various structures and politicxal organisation of transport is seriously limiting the amount and pace of change needed to meet the targets.

  6. The point about the VKT reduction being relative to a “reference scenario” is very significant. The scenario in the CCC advice has household VKT up 25% over 2019-2035, of which population growth contributes 12%. They also see a post-Covid recovery leading to 2023 being 7% higher than 2019 which seems very unlikely to me. Oil consumption in Q1 2022 is still 8% below peak.

    The CCC model has total household travel reducing by 3% which could be an underestimate if working from home persists.

    The Auckland Transport Emissions Reduction Plan should be out in a few days and we will see how they have sliced this. Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, to use a car-centric metaphor.

    1. Upvote this.
      In the last 3 months government has backtracked from a 20% reduction in VKT to virtually no reduction, by switching the baseline from 2019 to 2035.

    1. Correction, it’s just -10% of fossil-fueled km. Having trouble seeing how their plan adds up at the moment.

  7. Regardless of whether reduced VKT ,brings about reduced CO2,one thing it will definitely bring about is a “better place to live “. Surely ,most people would want that,or are we all programmed to keep expanding,whatever the cost.

  8. wivktoerp? istwaadnsi (what is vkt or erp? i search whole article and did not see it).. vehicles kill trans? and emergency role play? I mean at least spell it out first time please.

    1. The Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) is mentioned in the article before ERP is mentioned. You should be able to make this connection over two sentences, Richard.
      VKT is Vehicle Kilometers Travelled and should be shortly explained in the article.

  9. This makes the NPS-UD intensification plan change even more important. If Auckland is to do the ‘heavy lifting’ as the article suggests, then it is crucial that Council enables higher density housing in the locations most accessible by PT and active modes and turns off the tap for new greenfield development which generate high levels of VKT. Its an absolute travesty that the ERP (and therefore these targets) do not have legal weight under the RMA untill November, meaning that Council don’t have to consider it through the NPS-UD plan change.

  10. Greening our fleet, huh? Every few day it seems, another ship-load of imported cars disgorges itself onto Wellington’s Aotea Quay. These are predominantly SUVs and double-cab utes, and I would be surprised if any are electric. Despite much talk of reducing transport emissions, de-carbonising etc, this is the reality of what is happening. I expect it is the same at Ports of Auckland.

  11. “because we are just not a nation of cyclists”

    I would laugh at these kind of statements if they weren’t so ridiculous. Even if we didn’t consider ourselves such an out-performing sporting nation (obesity stats aside), with a strong track record in competitive cycling lol, this still doesn’t make any sense because there are no such things as nations of cyclists

    There are just some nations that have bothered to actually build infrastructure for cyclists, like the Danish & Dutch. The rest have not bothered and fall back on lazy tropes like yours as an excuse for inaction

  12. There was a recent post to do with biofuels, pouring cold water on the idea. You should put your thoughts in that section to attract more relevant discussion :

    Christchurch led the world at points in cycling mode share. The issues are purely build form and infra. By your “not a nation of cyclists” logic, we should not build nor encourage trams. We are even less a nation of trams than cycling. Cycling has an appreciable modeshare, not so for trams.

  13. A rebate for e-bike purchases would shift our VKT rather quickly. The demand for better & safer cycle infrastructure would follow. You never know, we might even become a nation of cyclists.

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