Analysis: In order to meet its emissions reductions targets, Auckland will have to add thousands of kilometres of cycleways and electrify vast swathes of its passenger fleet, Marc Daalder reports

Over the next decade, Auckland must transform into a completely different city.

That’s the conclusion of updated modelling from transport consultancy firm MRCagney and 1point5, a non-profit policy shop dedicated to reducing emissions in line with halting warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A new dashboard released last week shows big ticket public transport investments like the City Rail Link and light rail to Auckland Airport hardly move the needle on emissions, which the city has pledged to halve by 2030.

Instead, Auckland needs a total overhaul, adding thousands of kilometres of cycleways and bus lanes in the place of existing parking spots and passenger vehicle lanes, all while electrifying vast swathes of the city’s passenger fleet.

In other words, Auckland has a decade to turn into Copenhagen.

What doesn’t move the needle

The Transport2030 dashboard will prove surprising to anyone who has spent years hearing about how the latest multi-billion dollar project will meaningfully help reduce emissions. It shows, instead, that such investments hardly make a dent in what by 2030 will be the city’s 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions.

The city’s bevy of transport options – including passenger cars and public transport – currently emit about 2.8 million tonnes of CO2e but at the current rate of growth, that will swell to 3.5 million tonnes by 2030.

There are two possible targets on the dashboard. In the first, transport emissions are halved to 1.4 million tonnes, which assumes that every other emitting source in the city similarly halves emissions in order to reach the city’s 2030 target of a 50 percent emissions reduction.

In the second target, transport emissions are cut by 70 percent to 840,000 tonnes, to make up for the fact that agricultural emissions are unlikely to be halved in the next 10 years – they are only supposed to decrease by 10 percent under the Zero Carbon Act – and the Glenbrook Steel Mill and the glass sector, two other big emitters, don’t shut up shop or seriously reduce emissions.

“Transport emissions and others have to step up to ‘Carry the load’,” in such a scenario, the Transport2030 website says.

So, how can Auckland cut transport emissions by 50 to 70 percent?

Six major transport infrastructure projects, which between them would cost billions of dollars, have little impact on emissions, the modelling shows.

“Having done [the modelling], yes it surprised me because I had heard about, for example, the $28 billion over the next decade, which is a number that had been bandied around, and I’d sort of assumed that would have a meaningful impact on some mix of congestion and/or climate,” Paul Winton, founder of 1point5, told Newsroom.

“And the punchline was, those public transport things may make a useful contribution to taking the top off growth but really don’t touch the size of what we have today. All of those things that we’re doing at the moment don’t move the dial.”

City Rail Link, airport to Botany rapid transit, Isthmus Crosstown light rail, northwestern light rail, city to airport light rail and the Eastern Busway (AMETI) would, combined, reduce emissions by 164,000 tonnes – just 7.5 percent of the reductions needed to reach even the softer target from the 2030 baseline.

Increasing public transport use is similarly ineffectual. Even if 2.5 times as many people ride public transport to work, 238,000 tonnes will be carved off, or about 11.4 percent of the way to the easier target.

Total electrification of the bus system by 2025 – the current plan – will see a drop of just 24,000 tonnes by 2030. Electrifying Auckland’s buses this year would see only an additional 22,000 tonnes of emissions reductions.

The 10-year Auckland cycling investment plan will cut emissions by 79,000 tonnes. Doubling it would carve off another 99,000 tonnes, but real reductions are only seen if Auckland’s cycling levels reach those of Copenhagen – where 62 percent of the population cycles to work, school or university. Such a change – Winton calls it a 12 times increase in cycling – would cut emissions by a whopping 375,000 tonnes, or 17.2 percent of the needed reductions to halve transport emissions by 2030.

How to make the needle move

This major move to cycling and other emissions-free transport is just one part of what’s needed to reduce Auckland’s transport emissions by a suitable level, Winton says. The dashboard tells the rest of the story.

Fundamentally, the way to reduce transport emissions is to get cars off the roads or stop them from emitting. That means fewer rides, more people in each car and more clean or even electric vehicles.

Even a 10 percent reduction in the number of trips taken in Auckland would cut emissions by 351,000 tonnes. Halving rides would nearly halve emissions entirely, cutting emissions by 1.7 million tonnes.

A vehicle fuel emissions standard that would mandate a 10 percent reduction in the emissions per kilometre would carve off 350,000 tonnes of emissions. If that standard mandated a 40 percent decrease instead, emissions would drop by 1.4 million tonnes.

Another way to reduce vehicle emissions is to simply turn them electric. If a fifth of the city’s vehicle fleet – and this includes private vehicles – goes electric, emissions will drop by 635,000 tonnes. If half of the fleet was electric, that would deal with 1.6 million tonnes of emissions.

Lastly, increasing car occupancy would lead to fewer trips, which we’ve already seen will significantly cut emissions. The average car occupancy in Auckland stands at around 1.58 people per car. Bumping that all the way to two people per vehicle would carve 736,000 tonnes of emissions off of the city’s record.

Implementing effective policies

These are the policies Winton dreams of: Coherent, cost-effective strategies that would reshape Auckland into a carbon-free city.

However, he isn’t confident that officials responsible for implementing such a change are up for the task.

“There is exactly no focus on the part of Auckland Transport or NZTA on emissions at the moment. You will read the word ’emissions’ or ‘CO2’ in there somewhere, and it’s something around ‘we will try to make it slightly more emissions-efficient’ or words to that effect. But it’s just not a metric for them. They’re just not, at the moment, awake to the scale of change that is required of transport over the next decade, and/or they’re avoiding it,” he said.

There are three elements to the transformation Winton envisages.

First, a major investment in active transport: Cycling and walking. Even the Copenhagen comparison, Winton says, “is not enough. Maybe rough numbers, and Auckland-centric, we might need maybe 1000 kilometres of protected cycle and active mobility pathways by 2030.”

“Second, we need to then back that up with a lot of public transport. And that is most probably just boring old buses – and yeah, they should be electric. In order to do that, those two things, you’ve had to provide real estate for buses and real estate for safe, active transport. You’ve had to pull a lot of vehicle kilometres off the road to do that. Rough numbers: Maybe a third, maybe a half, maybe a quarter. 

“And then the third priority is, whatever’s left? Electrify it and decarbonise it.”

Little government appetite

However, Winton says there are no active policies that could accomplish the scale of electrification needed. He sees the now-deceased feebate scheme as a model for what would have been needed, “albeit with much, much stronger levers”.

Newsroom has previously reported on how the Government abandoned a commitment to electrify its own fleet by mid-2025, implausibly revived that same target with no plan to meet it and blown off a National-era target to have 64,000 electric vehicles on the road by the end of 2021.

When presented with policies that would have helped electrify the fleet, such as a ban on importing fossil fuel vehicles after 2035 or a scheme to scrap old, high-emitting vehicles, it has consistently decided against implementing them. All the while, gas-guzzling double-cab utes still receive a break from the Fringe Benefit Tax.

“This is actually not cash-expensive. And in fact it’s cash-less-expensive than the stuff that is typically proposed, because we’re using, if we talk about the first thing, for the most part that’s existing real estate that, on a 10-year timeline, has probably just had a bunch of robust planters put in place. So parking is replaced by an e-mobility or a cycle lane, for example. That’s not expensive,” Winton said.

“In the local areas, that decision falls to local parties. In the Auckland case, it’s Auckland Transport who can make that decision. The challenge is their funding model is supported by NZTA and that’s when your central Government needs to come to the party. So in order for your first and second priority to happen, that’s Auckland Transport and NZTA that need to come to the party and support, basically, the reallocation of existing space.

“There’s tools that exist all around the world, you’ve just got to have somebody actually realise that the current plan doesn’t even touch the sides on emissions and congestion and sit down and create an alternative path. And that’s the thing that’s missing at the moment: Auckland Transport and NZTA are failing to recognise the inadequacy of their plans. They’re kind of stumbling along and they need to step up.”

An Auckland Transport spokesperson didn’t address Winton’s criticism but emphasised the agency’s electrification of buses in a statement.

“New buses added to Auckland’s commuter fleet are likely to be electric from now on. Auckland Transport hopes initially up to 30 electric buses each year will join the city’s fleet but that rate will be stepped up as contracts come up for renewal,” the spokesperson said.

“In the short-term, Waiheke is getting eight electric buses, the red CityLINK buses are being replaced with 12 electric buses and nine electric buses will be used on the Airport Link. Auckland has a big fleet of large capacity buses and will trial two electric and one hydrogen three-axle buses later this year before that type of bus will be required under future contracts.”

In a statement, NZTA general manager for safety, health and the environment Greg Lazzaro defended the agency’s work on climate change.

“Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency is committed to environmental sustainability and public health in the land transport sector. This commitment is encapsulated in our new Sustainability Action Plan, Toitū Te Taiao, which sets out our vision of a low-carbon, safe and healthy land transport system by 2050,” Lazzaro said.

“We agree that reducing land transport emissions is a huge and important challenge, especially for our major urban areas. No single intervention will be enough to reduce emissions. Toitū sets out the actions we are taking on multiple fronts; looking at how we plan and make investment decisions, shifting to sustainable transport modes and supporting the effort to improve the energy efficiency of the vehicle fleet.

“We are actively working alongside the Ministry of Transport and the Climate Change Commission to understand the nature and extent of changes that are necessary to move Aotearoa to a low-carbon transport system. Necessary interventions include compact urban form to reduce the need to travel, more public transport and walking and cycling opportunities in major urban areas, electrification of vehicles over time and revising our investment assessment settings to include a mandatory assessment of the impact programmes will have on emissions.”

Neither agency addressed the findings of Transport2030 that big ticket investments will produce a negligible reduction in emissions, but a much more transformational strategy is needed.

“Thus far, when we think about climate, it’s been big and amorphous and you don’t know where to go. Whereas, if you believe the work that we’ve done, we need to focus on transport. Secondly, if you want to then move transport, it actually falls into the hands of a couple of dozen people. The decision-makers you could have over for dinner,” Winton said.

“For those of us who are interested in a good climate future, a safe transport system, a health transport system, we now need to talk to the board of Auckland Transport, the board of NZTA and the Minister of Transport and get them to realise that the current plan is just grossly inadequate and that we need to tear it up and start again.”

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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