Analysis: $5.3 billion for new roads could lead to 21 million tonnes of emissions over the next 50 years.

Jacinda Ardern called climate change her “generation’s nuclear-free moment”. Phil Twyford decried an obsession with a few gold-plated super-roads”, referencing National’s Roads of National Significance.

Now the Government is forking out $5.3 billion for new roads which environmental advocates say will lock in high carbon emissions for decades to come.

“The really big ticket item, the billions, is spending on things destined to make climate change worse and to make our society more car-dependent,” Greenpeace New Zealand executive director Russel Norman told Newsroom.

More roads mean more cars

Advocates of bigger roading projects have previously defended them as having a positive impact on the climate. By widening roads, congestion can be reduced and if fewer cars are idling on Auckland’s motorways, then there are fewer emissions, they say.

Norman says the evidence doesn’t bear this out. “There’s lots of good evidence that building large roads or widening existing roads completely induces more traffic and ends up with more congestion,” he said.

“For example, they’re planning to three-lane Papakura to Drury, they keep adding lanes as much as they’re able to, to these roads, and all that it does is induce more people to drive. You might get a short-term, positive impact in terms of reducing congestion but the long-term impact is to make even more people car-dependent and even more congestion.”

Studies in Europe, the United States and Australia have all shown that congestion ticks upwards when new roads are built. Conversely, closing down roads can decrease congestion as would-be drivers decide to take public transport, cycle, or walk instead.

A 2007 study from the United States found conclusively that widening roads leads to greater greenhouse emissions. Each extra kilometer of one-lane highway that was built led to 62,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions over the next half-century.

According to these numbers, the Government’s $817 million spend on a new 24-kilometer, four-lane highway from Otaki to north of Levin would be responsible for six million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2080, or 7.5 percent of New Zealand’s gross 2017 greenhouse emissions.

Even putting aside the link between roads and car use, the construction of roads and other buildings contributes to emissions. A report from the New Zealand Green Building Council in September found that 20 percent of New Zealand’s emissions come from constructing and operating buildings.

This also applies to building roads, which rely on emissions-intensive manufacturing procedures for the creation of asphalt. A 2016 study found that a kilometer of one-lane asphalt road in China produced 653 tonnes of emissions. That adds another percent onto emissions produced for each kilometer of road built. 

The Government’s full roading package, broken down into single-lane road, runs to more than 350 kilometers, locking in 21.9 million tonnes of transport emissions and another 228,550 tonnes of construction emissions.

Electric vehicles needed to justify roads

David Tong, the climate change programme manager at WWF New Zealand, said the only way that these roads could be justified would be if electric vehicles were adopted en masse.

“The IPCC has made it clear we need an economic transformation of unprecedented scale if we’re going to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. That 1.5 degree number is the basis of the Zero Carbon Act. This does not reflect a transformation of unprecedented scale. This reflects politics and infrastructure investment as has been done in the past continuing to be done,” he said.

“There are ways that Government could invest in new roads while promoting decarbonisation. It would be possible to turn over a large percentage of our private vehicle fleet within ten years. Decarbonising vehicle transport will be one of the real tricks to cutting our emissions by 2030 to achieve the Zero Carbon Act’s targets.”

The existing policies for electrifying New Zealand’s private vehicle fleet are not enough, however. “It’s a good start but it’s not at the scale or pace we need,” Tong said.

Newsroom previously reported that the Government has abandoned its own target for electrifying the Government vehicle fleet and decided against legislating a ban on the import of fossil fuel vehicles after 2035. The latter policy would have averted 27 million tonnes of emissions over its lifetime, according to a Ministry of Transport analysis. The Government’s flagship electric vehicle policy, the feebate scheme, will instead avert just 1.6 million tonnes.

Shaw defends programme, points to decarbonisation

Green Party co-leader James Shaw, already in campaign mode after Tuesday’s election announcement, defended the announcement. “Let’s be clear about what was announced today: more rail, more public transport and more cycling and walking projects. That is vastly different to what would have happened had the Greens not be around the decision making table,” he said.

James Shaw tells reporters: “it will come as no surprise to anyone that if the Greens had designed the package ourselves we would have allocated some of this money differently”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Norman and Tong both conceded that the infrastructure package contained some good initiatives. “There is some spending that’s positive in there,” Norman said.

“There are some spending elements in there that are consistent with a response to the climate emergency but the vast bulk of spending is consistent with making the climate emergency worse by making us more dependent on cars and trucks.”

“There are some good parts in it. More rail is good but the heavy weighting towards roads surprised us and isn’t in line with what we need to achieve our climate objectives,” Tong said.

However, Shaw also admitted, “it will come as no surprise to anyone that if the Greens had designed the package ourselves we would have allocated some of this money differently”.

He also highlighted efforts to decarbonise public facilities that were included in the infrastructure spend, such as $7.2 million to replace nine coal boilers in schools and hospitals. Another $190 million for decarbonisation has yet to be assigned.

The nine boilers targeted in this announcement were just the tip of the iceberg, Tong said. “We have 200 or so coal burners in hospitals and schools. It’s a good step forward to be talking about taking nine of them off and replacing them, but in 2020 we shouldn’t have 200 coal burners owned by this Government.”

“It would cost a small percentage of the funds being allocated to new roads here to switch the vast majority of Government coal use onto renewable energy technology. It would also be possible to invest in electrification of more public transport and to invest in supporting and unlocking electrification of the vehicle fleet.”

Tong said the fact that just $200 million of the $12 billion spend – less than 2 percent of the total pot – showed the Government’s priorities weren’t in the right place.

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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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