The Government has pulled a u-turn on a u-turn, reviving a promise to make its light vehicle fleet emissions-free by the middle of the decade after quietly scrapping it last year.

The original goal was set out in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement, but little action was taken on it until the beginning of 2019. By August, the Government had altered the target to having all vehicles entering the fleet after June 2025 be emissions-free, as highlighted in its Climate Action Plan.

After Newsroom reported the abandonment of the original target, Climate Change Minister James Shaw told reporters it was “ultimately a Cabinet decision, it was seen as pragmatic in that there would be more new vehicles entering the fleet from 2025”.

Now, however, the Government is insisting the target was never changed. “Nothing has changed, it’s just different wording,” a spokesperson for Minister for Economic Development Phil Twyford told Newsroom. The spokesperson also linked Newsroom to two Cabinet papers containing the original target, but these pre-dated the switch in policy in mid-2019.

Does the Government know what its policy is?

The entire saga has led to a perception the Government doesn’t know what its own policy is, says National Party Transport spokesperson Chris Bishop.

“It’s just dysfunction junction, in terms of electric vehicle policy for this Government,” he said.

In October, the Government Procurement website that tracks the Government fleet’s emissions profile stated new vehicles entering the fleet should be emissions-free by 2025/26. It now displays the original goal of an emissions-free fleet by 2025/26.

A spokesperson for the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, which oversees Procurement, attempted to explain the discrepancy.

“The Government has a target that its vehicle fleet, where practicable, is to become emissions-free by 2025/26. New Zealand Government Procurement and Property, via the All-of-Government Motor Vehicles contract, have purview only over new vehicles entering the fleet through this contract. Language reflecting this scope was originally used on the Government Fleet Emissions Dashboard webpage. This information has now been aligned with the target set out in the coalition agreement, for consistency.”

However, there is a substantive difference between a target of an emissions-free fleet by mid-2025 and a target of vehicles entering the fleet after mid-2025 being emissions-free.

Target difficult to meet

That difference can be illustrated by examining the steps needed to get there. To meet the weaker target, the Government could theoretically purchase zero electric vehicles between today and June 2025, so long as all vehicles it purchased after that date were electric – or otherwise emissions-free, perhaps through biofuel or hydrogen.

The Government turns over its fleet every three to five years, Twyford says, meaning fossil fuel vehicles could still be in use by the Government as late as 2030 under the weaker paradigm.

Meanwhile, to meet the original – and, apparently, current – target, the Government needs to cycle 15,000 vehicles out of the fleet and replace them with emissions-free alternatives over the next five years. That’s a rate of about 230 electric vehicles a month.

“It seems like a pipe dream,” Bishop said.

The Government is not on the track it needs to be to meet its target, as this chart from MBIE shows

Is the Government close to meeting that rate? Not at all. Out of the 15,766 vehicles in the Government’s fleet, only 82 are electric.

Between the first and second quarters of the 2019/20 financial year, the Government added a net of nearly 300 vehicles to its fleet. Just three were electric.

“A bit like everything with this Government, it’s a huge amount of talk, not a lot of planning to actually deliver on the big talk. Not even, from what I can see, any real policy around the Government fleet but also greening our vehicle fleet more generally,” Bishop said.

An MBIE spokesperson said the Government is working to increase electric vehicle uptake through a number of policies, including adding more electric vehicle producers to the list of permitted vehicle suppliers, creating an Emissions Dashboard which tracks Government fleet emissions and instructing agencies to “support the procurement of low-emissions and low-waste goods, services and works [and] encourage innovation to significantly reduce emissions and waste impacts from goods and services”.

Caveat slightly alleviates burden

The Government does have an advantage, in that its goal comes with a key caveat: an emissions-free fleet by 2025/26 where practicable. In a statement to Newsroom in October, Twyford implied this caveat would be used for vehicles for which there are no electric alternatives by the deadline.

“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,” Twyford said.

Of the 15,766 vehicles in the Government fleet, 12,606 of them are classified as “passenger car/van” and 3,160 of them are classified as “goods van/truck/utility” vehicles.

Assuming all of the latter are exempted under the “where practicable” caveat still leaves the Government with more than 12,500 vehicles to cycle to emissions-free alternatives over the next 64 months – or nearly 200 per month.

While this would be feasible, there are no indicators the Government is currently prepared or willing to commit to electric vehicle uptake of this scale.

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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