There are 15,473 vehicles in the government fleet and only 78 are electric. When the coalition Government came into power in late 2017, the agreement between Labour and New Zealand First stipulated that the entire fleet would be emissions-free by mid-2025, “where practicable”.

Although it was repeated as recently as June, that goal has been quietly revised to a commitment that, after mid-2025, all new vehicles entering the fleet will be emissions-free.

Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson criticised the decision. “The Government’s quiet back down on electrifying its vehicle fleet is surprising and incredibly disappointing,” she said.

“This is a climate emergency and the Government should be leading by example to cut our dependence on the dirty fuels driving this crisis.”

Emissions-free fleet a high bar

Making the government fleet fully emissions-free would have been a daunting task, even with the “where practicable” caveat. The Government’s progress so far has been abysmal.

Out of around 15,000 vehicles, less than half of a percent of the Government’s fleet is electric. This has been the case for at least the past nine months, according to data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Electric vehicles have trickled into the fleet at a snail’s pace. In the third quarter of the 2018/2019 financial year, there were 71 electric vehicles. The next quarter, that number rose to 73 and has now reached 78.

In the most recent quarter, in addition to adding five electric vehicles, the Government added a net of 514 non-electric vehicles.

Were the Government to have attempted to maintain the same number of vehicles in the fleet, it would have had to cycle in 226 electric cars every month beginning next month in order to meet its target.

Under National, the government committed to making a third of its fleet electric or hybrid by 2021. While there are slightly more hybrid vehicles in the fleet – 514 in the most recent quarter – this short deadline would have been equally difficult to achieve.

If the fleet were to remain the same size, the Government would have had to replace 326 fossil fuel vehicles with hybrids or electrics every single month between November 2019 and December 2020.

Plan was still feasible

Jeff Vickers is the technical director of Thinkstep Australasia, a sustainable policy shop and consultancy firm. He believes that a fully electric government fleet was possible, but that the Government didn’t make the commitments it needed to.

“It would have been feasible but it would have been expensive,” he said. “You’re talking about a timeline of, when they first made [the commitment], seven or eight years away. To turn over your entire fleet in seven or eight years based on natural turnover seems not that likely.”

However, Vickers said, it was possible. If all new vehicles to the government fleet were electric beginning in late 2017, then the bulk of the fleet could have turned over by mid-2025. “If they really wanted to achieve the original policy, which was set maybe seven or eight years [before 2025], they would have basically have to have been purchasing all electric at the time that they announced it,” he said.

Greenpeace’s Larsson agreed. “If the Government was listening to the public, then every new vehicle entering the fleet today would be zero emissions, with the goal of making the whole fleet zero emissions by 2025,” she said.

The way the Government progressed – adding just a handful of electric vehicles each quarter – was not a sustainable path to achieve the goal.

“I think they would’ve needed to do more. The reality is that they probably could have done more. You would definitely have expected a higher rate of uptake … if that was their policy.”

The new Government commitment is more doable, Vickers said. “I think it’s much easier to do it when you say, okay, every new vehicle in 2025/2026 [will be electric] because by then we assume there will be a much larger number of [electric] vehicles on the market and they will be much more cost-competitive.”

“It’s a more economic way of doing it, although obviously less ambitious.”

Government quietly dropped commitment

The Government’s altered commitment was highlighted as part of its Climate Action Plan in August. The August announcement didn’t note that the commitment represented a drawback from an earlier, stronger goal.

“The Labour-NZ First coalition agreement is the high level aim our Government is working towards. The initiative signed off by Cabinet reflects what is practicable and still meets the Government’s aims,” Twyford said in a statement.

Twyford maintained that “virtually all government vehicles where practicable will be emissions free by 2025/26”.

“There will always be some cases where emissions free vehicles can’t do the job required for example, four-wheel drive Department of Conservation trucks or for travel along the West Coast where there are fewer EV charging stations.”

He stressed that turnover for the government fleet won’t take as long as for the rest of the country. “Unlike most vehicle owners, the Government leases its fleet so vehicles turn over on average every 3-5 years,” he said. This means that fossil fuel vehicles could still be in use by the Government past 2030.

The older requirement was still in place when Cabinet signed off on a June 20 paper related to efforts to lower the emissions of the entire country’s fleet.

“The Government is leading by example to reduce vehicle emissions,” Associate Minister for Transport Julie Anne Genter wrote in the Cabinet paper.

Genter recognised the tall order facing the Government in this regard.

“Government agencies will be required to improve the emissions profile of the vehicles they purchase at a faster rate than what I am proposing for the national fleet. Virtually all vehicles entering the government fleet will need to be zero emissions by 2025/26.”

Larsson told Newsroom that the new policy wasn’t good enough.

“This broken promise comes as millions of people around the world are hitting the streets to demand action on climate change. In New Zealand, 3.5 percent of our population took part in the recent climate strikes,” she said.

“It’s highly concerning that climate goals are being watered down at the same time as public pressure to take bold climate action is only mounting.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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